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House of Lords

Wednesday 4 November 2009

3 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells.

Afghanistan

Question

3.07 pm

Asked By Lord Renton of Mount Harry

Lord Brett: My Lords, with the indulgence of the House, before I address the Question I should like on behalf of the whole House to pay our full respects to members of the Armed Forces who have given their lives on behalf of their country, particularly the five British soldiers killed in an incident in the Nad-e-Ali district of Helmand province on 3 November. I cannot exceed the eloquence with which tributes were paid in another place today by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Soldiers have lost their lives and our condolences and sympathies go to their families. They fought to make Afghanistan more secure and, above all, to make Britain a safer place from terrorism and extremism, which continues to threaten us from the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I pay tribute to their courage, skill and determination; they will never be forgotten. I believe the whole House would endorse those sentiments.

President Karzai was the clear choice of the Afghan people and on 2 November he was formally declared the winner by the official Afghan election authorities. We now look to him to drive forward a programme that represents the interests of all Afghans. The international community is right to be in Afghanistan to ensure that that country continues on its forward path and never again becomes a safe haven for al-Qaeda. Our policy to achieve this remains consistent and firm.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: I express deepest sympathy from the Back Benches to the families of the five soldiers who were killed yesterday.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I do not share his optimism, not least about President Karzai. Does he agree that against the corrupt and discredited background of President Karzai, we cannot have any confidence in him thwarting the fraud and corruption that has been so much a foot-mark and stigma of Afghanistan in recent years? Against that background, does not the Minister agree that we had a certain tune to play but we now need to change it? Is it not right that we should have a new policy on Afghanistan, possibly with the Americans, that will decide afresh how best to help the Afghans and to deal with al-Qaeda?



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Lord Brett: My Lords, I do not believe that we need a new tune. We have the word of the newly elected leader of the choir-the Government of Afghanistan, who in many eyes are inefficient and corrupt-that he will remove the stain of corruption from Afghanistan. He has to appoint a Government with new Ministers and to carry forward to the country as a whole that commitment to the fight against corruption and terrorism. We need to assist him in that and guide him where possible. To abandon or change the policy would not necessarily do anything to help Afghanistan and could be damaging to the United Kingdom.

Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon: My Lords, nothing can diminish or should distract us from the tragedy of five young lives lost yesterday, the pain of their families or the bitterness that we feel because their deaths have been brought about by those who said they were our partners. However, we should not allow ourselves to be distracted from the fact that failure in Afghanistan-and we are quite close to it, in my view-or withdrawal would have baleful consequences, including abandoning the clear majority of Afghans who want us to be there while only 5 per cent support the Taliban. That would mean that al-Qaeda was able to expand from a small area of northern Pakistan where it is under pressure to a large area in the south of Afghanistan where it is not, the inevitable collapse of the Pakistan Government and jihadi hands far too close to a nuclear weapon. It would mean deepening the instability of the world's most unstable region, and a mortal blow both to NATO and to respect for it throughout the world, on which we depend. By the way, it would also mean a severe blow to our moderate Islamic friends who are courageously fighting a battle against jihadism and medievalism in their own religion in favour of its true values of tolerance and civilisation. These are consequences that ought to be in our mind at this moment, are they not?

Lord Brett: Noble Lords, as I have learnt to my cost, do not like long questions or long answers. I am delighted that the noble Lord's question, which was not too long, allows me to provide a very short answer: I agree with him 100 per cent.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I associate myself with the remarks that have been made about the five soldiers who sadly lost their lives yesterday. If the aim of the Government is to help Afghanistan to become more normal, as they say, why is so little being done to help it exploit the literally trillions of minerals under the ground in that country?

Lord Brett: I am not sure that I understand that there are trillions of anything in Afghanistan, apart from too large a crop of poppies. We are seeking to assist diversification from that crop and others. I am sure that knowledge of vast sums of money to be extracted from the ground in the form of minerals would be in the interests of the Afghan Government, the United Kingdom and others. We are not in this alone; there are 43 nations tasked with bringing normality to Afghanistan, as it has been put. That would be in its interests but-do not forget-in ours as well.



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The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells: My Lords, I express from these Benches our sympathy and condolences to all those who have lost their lives in this recent incident in Afghanistan. Does the Minister agree that the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategies have resulted in serious civilian casualties and the alienation of the population, producing angry recruits for terrorism, and that together with the Americans we should now, with development, using our military resources, provide security exclusively to protect the strategic rebuilding of the country that is urgently needed?

Lord Brett: I agree with the right reverend Prelate's sentiments but I cannot agree with the first part of his question; I do not think there is evidence that the vast majority of Afghans are alienated by what the United Kingdom and its allies seek to do. There is broad support. They have been subject to coercion and intimidation by the Taliban and behind that, in its own way, by al-Qaeda. Those are the two enemies, and we need to bring along with us the majority of Afghans in government and in the public to appreciate that we are there to help that country. The end game that the right reverend Prelate seeks is one that we agree on, but I do not accept the first premise in his question.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I recognise that there is widespread fraud and corruption throughout Afghanistan, but does not my noble friend believe that, if we changed our policy, that fraud and corruption would become even greater?

Lord Brett: My Lords, the premise on which that question is based reminds me of the tale of the Irishman-I am Irish, so I can say this-who was asked by somebody how to get to Dublin. He said, "If I was you, I wouldn't start from here". The truth is that we are starting from where we are: from a country which has been dominated by coercion and intimidation. We have had the first election in 30 years; we have corruption; but we have honest politicians, honest governors and honest Afghans-we have a candidate who fought the election on tackling corruption. We therefore need to sustain and support the Government, and particularly those parts of Afghan society that want to change the country in the way in which we want it to change; that is, to a fully democratic state, with the rights of all its citizens protected.

Agriculture: Sheep Tagging

Question

3.16 pm

Asked By The Lord Archbishop of York



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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Davies of Oldham): My Lords, the Government are aware of concerns about the ability of electronic reading equipment to capture individual information on every animal passing through central point recording centres, particularly where it could impact on keepers' single farm payments.

The Government do not think that it is reasonable to penalise a keeper in these circumstances. I am pleased to confirm that keepers will not be penalised through their single farm payment when incomplete data are provided by a central point recording centre.

The Archbishop of York: I am grateful for that Answer and for the Minister's assurance that a failure of equipment will not result in penalties through single farm payments. If it did, it would not be good for those farmers' well-being or health. If tagging equipment fails on prisoners, those who use that equipment are never penalised in their pay, so why should the farmers be?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I know that the most reverend Primate has taken a keen interest in these matters, which are of course of the greatest concern to sheep farmers, particularly those on hillsides and upland areas. I am grateful for his interest, which has occasioned letters to my highest authority-namely, the Prime Minister, who is perhaps not the most reverend Primate's highest authority-as well as to my Secretary of State. I am pleased that we have been able in our discussions to reach a position of some improvement.

Lord Vinson: My Lords, one must acknowledge that the Government have done their best to stop this unnecessary, expensive and crazy EU regulation, which they are now enforcing reluctantly. However, does the Minister not agree that it is a tragedy that we are debating the matter at all? Is it not a triumph of EU bureaucracy over our democracy and an example of the democratic deficit that lies at the heart of the EU experiment, which will surely lead to its downfall?

Lord Davies of Oldham: That was a modest question, my Lords, to which my response is straightforward; namely, that this regulation has been imposed against the will of the British Government, because we have been largely in a minority of one in our concern about EID, not least because we have one of the largest sheep populations in Europe. Others have embraced the regulation more enthusiastically. The Spanish and the Italians, for example, are already implementing the system. However, the noble Lord will give credence to the fact that it is being introduced as an animal health measure, against a background where, in 2001, Britain in particular paid an enormous price for foot and mouth disease. Europe has pursued a strategy which is not fully consonant with what we would have wished. That is why we have worked so hard to effect the policy in a way that minimises its impact on farmers.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, in the short time that I have been a keeper of Southdown sheep, we had, first, single ear tags, then double ear tags and, now, electronic tagging. Does the Minister see any end to Brussels making life more difficult for farmers?



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Lord Davies of Oldham: Well, my Lords, we have emphasised to Brussels, and in the negotiations within the Community, the problems with this scheme. Given the costs of this exercise, and its relative sophistication, there is no question of a refinement of this position in the foreseeable future. We have to live with what is proposed.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I congratulate the most reverend Primate on asking a question which refers to the sheep and the goats. Is it not the case-

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Greaves: One Bench understands the joke. The most recent statistics estimated the net annual income of upland sheep farms at about £5,000 a year. Despite the very welcome concessions to this scheme that the Government have negotiated it will still be a modest, but important, financial imposition on these farmers. Would it not be appropriate that recompense is given by modification of the support to such hill farmers?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to identify that upland farmers have some of the lowest farm incomes and are more on the margin than many other farmers, although prices have been more favourable to them in the past year. As far as help is concerned, we are on the brink of major negotiations regarding reform of the CAP and, whatever their view of the European Community, I doubt whether there is a single noble Lord who does not agree that the CAP needs reformation-if I can use that word in this context. We are looking towards reform of the CAP that would give a better deal to these farmers.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln: My Lords-

Lord Plumb: My Lords-

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, we are in the 16th minute.

Prisons: Garth

Question

3.22 pm

Asked By Baroness Stern

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons published a report of her announced inspection of HMP Garth, carried out in March and April 2009, on 26 August. The National Offender Management Service will provide a detailed response, in the form of an action plan, to address each of the 122 recommendations and this will be submitted to Ministers and the chief inspector. Progress has already been made in implementing a number of the recommendations.



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Baroness Stern: I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that in her report the chief inspector comments on the system of benchmarking that the Prison Service is operating, which in the words of the chief inspector is stripping out everything of excellence in Garth prison? What is this system of benchmarking? What is being benchmarked against what, and what effect is this benchmarking likely to have on excellence in prisons and on the rehabilitation of prisoners?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the inspector said about Her Majesty's Prison Garth that it was to the great credit of managers and staff that the inspection found Garth to be one of the most effective and well run adult prisons to be inspected. She said that the amount and range of activity offered to prisoners was described as outstanding, with almost all prisoners able to engage in education and work, which provides high-quality skills and some training related to employability. She did, indeed, make the comments that the noble Baroness mentions. However, the noble Baroness will know that we are implementing the recommendations of my noble friend Lord Carter in his review of value for money in the Prison Service, including a framework of costed specifications for all services delivered in prisons and probation. Benchmarking has highlighted the range of variation in cost and performance for the same service being delivered in different prisons. By encouraging expensive or underperforming services to improve, we think that we can deliver cash savings and, more importantly, improve the effectiveness of our work with offenders.

Lord Henley: My Lords, we know from the publication of leaked documents earlier this week, to which the Minister referred yesterday, that the Minister's department is trying to make savings in its rather bloated costs. How is the department hoping to make savings in an area such as this, and will this not actually end up increasing costs to the taxpayer-by increasing the amount of recidivism and all those matters-and probably increasing the number of people who have to go back to prison in future?

Lord Bach: My Lords, one way in which we intend to make savings is by implementing a much more streamlined regional and national structure for the Prison Service, which will save £20 million this year, with further savings planned for next year. That will free up resources for essential frontline work in prisons and probation. However, I have to throw the question back to the noble Lord to some extent. His party's schemes for prisons would add something like 15,000 prisoners overnight to the prison population and would cost more than £2 billion. I also understand that this part of his party's policy is not one of those parts that it has said will not have cuts. I am not sure where his party stands on this issue. Is it prepared to spend the extra money-

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Bach: Is it prepared to spend this extra money? The fact remains that it is talking big but in fact would do nothing.



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Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, instead of asking questions of the Opposition, does the Minister recall that the Chief Inspector of Prisons said that it was a serious and potentially risky development at Garth prison that there was a logjam of prisoners serving indefinite sentences for public protection? That logjam has not been broken but simply transferred from local prisons to Garth. There are some 200 young men serving those sentences without any possibility of gaining parole from that prison. What does the Minister propose to do about that? And please do not ask me to give our answer.

Lord Bach: I am tempted to ask the noble Lord what his party would actually do in this field, if it was ever anywhere close to government, but I shall resist that temptation. Of course, Her Majesty's inspector talked about various issues and problems at Garth, but I repeat that she said that the prison was doing extraordinarily well. It is a category B prison, which has in it a number of prisoners who could well be in high-security prisons. It has a lot of pressures but has done extremely well. One difficulty with the system is that a number of prisons do not do so well, and the important thing is to bring the standards up from those prisons to that of Garth.

Lord Dubs: My Lords-

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords-

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, we have time for two more questions. We will hear from my noble friend and then from the noble Lord.

Lord Dubs: My noble friend referred to savings. Will he confirm that they will apply only to public sector prisons and that private prisons will be exempt from such pressure because they have long-term contracts?

Lord Bach: It is right to say that they have contracts, whether long-term or not. However, we watch very closely how private prisons carry out the contracts that they have with government. Of course, the public prisons, which are the vast majority of prisons, as with all other aspects of work within government, have to take their share of the savings that have to be made.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, the Minister referred to the Carter report. When is it expected that the first prisoner will enter the first of the sub-Titan prisons to be built?

Lord Bach: I cannot tell the noble Lord that, but the building programme is on course and, as he knows, we are trying to make sure that there are 96,000 places by 2014. He knows that we have listened carefully to what was said, in this House and elsewhere, about the very large prisons that were at one stage being proposed, and that we modified our policy as a result of argument.


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